–by Sarah Lewis
While exploring the Capitol, it’s easy to be distracted by the marvelous statues of all the men and women that we recognize as cornerstones of our history, but what about those who laid the cornerstones of our nation’s Capitol? We don’t see them…and no one knows them well. It is for this reason that a sandstone marker was dedicated in the Capitol Visitor Center: to honor those enslaved laborers who built our Capitol one stone at a time, but whose names we do not know and whose statues we do not see.
During her speech at the dedication of the Capitol Visitor Center on December 2, 2008, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, “The Capitol was built by slaves…this Capitol Visitors Center is ready for 2009…the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator.” There is astonishingly little known of the enslaved laborers who constructed the Capitol, mostly because early record-keepers were indifferent to common laborers, so records concerning them are incomplete.
In 2005, Congress appointed a task force specifically to research this subject. While it was unable to identify many of the slaves who would have begun their work in 1793, the task force reported that slaves were involved in all aspects of the Capitol’s construction, from carpentry and masonry to glazing and painting, and especially the labor-intensive sawing of logs and stones. Life would have been lonely and bleak for these slaves, many residing in rural Virginia, as they worked from sunrise to sunset.
The sandstone marker was taken from the Capitol’s East Front portico and placed in the Visitor Center after legislation passed calling for a marker to recognize the contributions of enslaved laborers. At its 2012 dedication, Pelosi further remarked, “For too long the sacrifice of men and women who built this temple of democracy were overlooked; their toil forgotten; their story ignored or denied, and their voices silenced in the pages of history.”
The inscription reads:
THIS SANDSTONE WAS ORIGINALLY PART OF THE UNITED STATES CAPITOL’S EAST FRONT, CONSTRUCTED IN 18-24-1826. IT WAS QUARRIED BY LABORERS, INCLUDING ENSLAVED AFRICAN AMERICANS, AND COMMEMORATES THEIR IMPORTANT ROLE IN BUILDING THE CAPITOL.
The sandstone marker serves as a memorial of respect for these silenced laborers.
Editor’s note: Former USCHS staffer and 2013 Capitol Fellow Felicia Bell did significant research on the enslaved laborers who built the Capitol. We hope to feature some of her work in the future.
Tampa Bay Time article
Article about the marker’s dedication